Radio Station 2MT Centenary

The centenary of the first regular radio broadcasting station in England

Radio historians in England inform us that the very first radio broadcasting station established anywhere in the British Isles was located at Writtle in England, and the auspicious date for their inaugural broadcast was Tuesday February 14, 1922.  That would be exactly one hundred years ago tomorrow (Monday February 14, 2022).  (International Radio Day)

The picturesque village of Writtle is located on the west side of the River Can, just 1 mile west of the center of the much larger town of Chelmsford in the county of Essex England.  This village is described as: One of the loveliest villages in England, with a ravishing variety of ancient cottages.  (Writtle in Essex is located less than 15 miles from where Ray Robinson was born.)

Writtle, Essex. Photo: Visit Essex website

The village of Writtle traces its history back to the time of the Roman conquest more than two thousand years ago, and it was mentioned by name in the historic Domesday book of 1086.  The population of Writtle these days is a little more than 5,000.

The historic inaugural transmission from station 2MT took place in a prefabricated wooden army hut that was constructed during World War 1 for use in France, though it never left England.  In 1919, the Marconi company obtained the hut as war surplus equipment and they installed it on the roadside edge of a sometimes flooded and soggy field in Writtle.  Marconi personnel installed early electronic equipment into the Radio Hut for experimented voice communication with aircraft.

The Marconi broadcasting hut, now preserved in the Sandford Mill Science Store, part of Chelmsford Museums.
Photo © Chelmsford Museums.

A newly appointed Postmaster General gave reluctant approval for the new 2MT to broadcast a 15 minute program of speech and music, which was to be included within the weekly half hour frequency calibration transmission.  The responsibility for this (now!) historic radio broadcast was given to the Marconi Engineer, Royal Air Force Captain Peter P. Eckersley, in the morning of February 12, 1922, just two days before the intended inaugural transmission.

A new transmitter had been assembled with the use of parts already available at the new Marconi factory that had been established on New Street in Chelmsford, ground that was part of the Essex County Cricket Club.  The completed transmitter was installed into the Radio Hut at Writtle.

This new radio transmitter used five Marconi glass enclosed valves (tubes), and the filament voltage was generated by two 4 cylinder Austin motor car engines.  The incoming electrical current was rated at 400 volts at 300 cycles.  The antenna system consisted of 4 parallel wires on 12 ft spreaders, all of which were supported by two Marconi masts 110 ft tall and 200 ft apart.

Early photos of 2MT.
Photos: Chelmsford City Council

This awesome though informal inaugural radio broadcast on February 14, 1922  began at 7:15 pm and it was transmitted on longwave 700 m (428 kHz) with a power of 250 watts.  The regular Tuesday night frequency calibration test began at 7:00 pm, and this was followed by the inaugural program broadcast.

The evening program began with a test announcement by Peter Eckersley in which he identified the station as Two Emma Toc, that is 2MT, in the Phonetic Alphabet that was in use by the British Army back then.  The quarter hour program also included live vocal music presented by Robert Howe.

Recreation of Peter Eckersley’s 2MT test announcement, from the 1972 BBC LP “50 Years of the BBC 1922-1972”
Chris Mackerell Collection, Radio Heritage Foundation

Every Tuesday evening, there was a similar broadcast from that new Marconi entertainment station 2MT at Writtle, near Chelmsford.  Captain Eckersley was the organizer, the announcer and the operator, together with several Marconi staff as assistants.  On some occasions, recorded music was played on a gramophone player, and sometimes they borrowed a piano from a local public house for the presentation of live music.

The audience back then were mostly amateur radio operators, men and occasionally women, who had built their own radio receivers.  The wireless operators who were serving on naval and commercial shipping in nearby waters also enjoyed the programming from Marconi 2MT. 

All of these radio operators were also listening to similar radio programming that was on the air in regular short bursts from similar radio stations in France, (Radio Radiola in Paris) and Holland (the Hague Concerts) and occasional tests from Germany, as well as a host of European radio amateurs who were sometimes amusing themselves and others with the broadcast of recorded music.

Examples of the music early listeners would have heard on 2MT, from the 1972 BBC LP “50 Years of the BBC 1922-1972”
Chris Mackerell Collection, Radio Heritage Foundation

Two weeks after their official though informal opening, station 2MT went on the air with a special broadcast, the first live broadcast of a wedding on radio in England (February 28, 1922).  The marriage ceremony celebrated the wedding of 24 year old Princess Mary (only daughter of King George 5) to 39 year old Henry Lascelles (Earl of Harwood).

Three months after its inauguration, the operating channel for station 2MT Writtle was changed from 700 m (428 kHz) longwave to 400 m (750 kHz) mediumwave on May 29 (1922).  That technical change was necessary due to undesired interference from the many harmonics radiated by 2MT as well as by the arc transmitters at the Post Office Station at Leafield. 

During its almost one year of on air service, the electronic equipment in the Writtle Hut was modified, changed, developed, and improved as circumstances would suggest.

Station 2MT, by that time now quite famous in the European radio world, was quietly closed, with its final broadcast on Tuesday evening January 16, 1923.  Next day, Wednesday January 17, 1923, the now historic Marconi broadcasting station 2MT, Two Emma Toc, no longer existed.  Already another Marconi station 2LO in London, was indeed well established. 

So what happened afterwards?  Ultimately, the usable left over radio equipment from 2MT was removed and recycled at the Marconi radio factory in Chelmsford.  The Radio Hut at Writtle was subsequently relocated to the King’s Road Primary School in Chelmsford, and later again it was re-erected at the Sandford Mill Museum near Sandon, and replica radio equipment was installed.  The soggy and sometimes flooded land upon which the Radio Hut had been erected at Writtle was sold off, and it became a housing estate.

This feature was written by Adrian Peterson and originally aired on Adventist World Radio’s “Wavescan” DX program of February 13, 2022

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